Worst Best Pictures: Why the Academy Screws Up the Category So Often

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"Casablanca" has stood the test of time and the Academy got it right when it was awarded the Oscar for best picture in 1944. Warner Bros

Anybody who has lived in or even visited New York City is able to attest to the following: the colossal grandeur of the Empire State Building is only truly appreciated from a distance. Standing on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, as Cary Grant once did in An Affair to Remember, the edifice looms large but does not particularly stand out. In most parts of Manhattan, other buildings occlude one's view of the 103-story masterpiece. (And certainly, if one is standing atop it, as King Kong once did, the building's presence is somewhat forgotten).

No, it is only from a distance, whether you stand at the north end of Central Park's Great Lawn; or, farther, driving along the New Jersey Turnpike or cresting the Long Island Expressway near the edge of Queens or crossing the Verrazano Bridge; or while sitting on a runway at JFK, La Guardia or Newark airports; only from such vantage points can you at last see that the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, stands out among all other skyscrapers in the Big Apple.

Distance lends perspective.

Which brings us to the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, which will air (and err) this Sunday evening. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not always flub its most meaningful vote (e.g. The Godfather was the right choice in 1972), but it does so often enough (see: 1996, The English Patient) that it got me wondering if there is an inherent flaw in the system.

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Time is the best remedy for perspective. Warner Bros

The answer: Yes, and more than one. To begin with, as already mentioned, there is no better test to apply to a film than how it stands up over time. Is Boyhood a great film? Ask me in 10 years if I want to see it again. It's telling that this past week marked the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club and to celebrate the film is being given a limited re-release in theaters. John Hughes's 1985 teen-angst comedy was not nominated for Best Picture–in fact, it garnered zero Oscar nominations. That year's winner was Out of Africa, which even Robert Redford and Meryl Streep failed to make rewatchable.

Second, the Academy suffers from what job recruiters might refer to as "Tell Us About Yourself" syndrome. Ask a job applicant to mention three identifying traits and you probably will hear a different set of qualities from what that person's family or closest friends would say. The Best Picture is often a nod to Hollywood's sense self-importance as opposed to simply honoring a great movie (notice how many times you'll hear the term "film" as opposed to "movie" come Sunday night). Case in point, 1975: Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a terrific film examining mental illness, but Jaws remains one of the best movies ever made.

The Best Picture is when Hollywood puts on its Save The Whales/Recycle/I Can't Breathe face, which is why socially-aware-but-not-too-controversial films such as Dances With Wolves (1991) and Ordinary People (1980) triumph over films that we'd all actually watch a second time without a howitzer pressed against our temples, such as Goodfellas (also 1991) or Raging Bull (also 1980). (Or maybe Oscar just holds a grudge against director Martin Scorsese and leading man Robert De Niro, since supporting actor Joe Pesci was nominated for both and won for the former.)

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Ellen Degeneres quipped during the 2014 Oscars that if you didn't like "12 Years a Slave," you may be a racist. Fox

As last year's host, Ellen Degeneres, quipped in her opening monologue, "The night could end in one of two ways. Possibility No. 1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility No. 2: You're all racists."

Granted, it's a subjective process. Is the Best Picture the one that entertained us the most? The one that we would most likely view again if we were flying across the country and all the nominees were available to see in your seat (yes)? The film that has the most redeeming social value (no)?

And, again, the Academy's batting average is pretty good. Previous Best Picture winners include bothGodfather films (the third abomination is more dead to me than Fredo was to Michael after Havana), Casablanca ('43), The Bridge on the River Kwai ('57) and The Silence of the Lambs ('91), among others. Some years there are a surfeit of choices: You choose between Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (the former won in 1939; I'd go with the latter).

But enough of my bloviating and analysis. Let's have some fun. Below, I've assessed Academy's Best Picture selections from the past 35 years. Applying the Empire State Building premise, that distance lends perspective, and judging on the basis of which movie I'd most want to see again (and again) if, say, mountains of snow and sub-zero temperatures outside rendered me housebound on a mid-winter weekend, here are my highly subjective choices.

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"Million Dollar Baby" took home two Oscars in 2004, for best picture and best director. Warner Bros

Beside each Best Picture winner, I will either place a "+," which means Oscar got it right; a "?," which means "Are you kidding?," or an "=," which translates to "Debatable choice." Below it, I've listed my favorite film from that year. If more than one film appears after that Best Picture, that's my order of favorites for Best Picture.

One final aside: There needs to be a Best Comedy or Musical category, which they do for the Golden Globes. There are too many films that meet the "I'd See It Again" standard that Hollywood annually ignores. How many times have you seen Caddyshack or Airplane!, for example? How many times have you seen Ordinary People? They were all released the same year, 1980.

1979: Kramer vs Kramer (?)
Tagline: Divorce sucks
Apocalypse Now

1980: Ordinary People (?)
Tagline: Suicide sucks
Raging Bull, The Shining, Caddyshack

1981: Chariots of Fire (=)
Gallipoli, Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982: Gandhi (=)
Tagline: Pacifism is a bitch
E.T., Tootsie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

1983: Terms of Endearment
Tagline: Cancer sucks
A Christmas Story, Risky Business

1984: Amadeus (=)
Tagline: Being a child prodigy sucks
The Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap

1985: Out of Africa (?)
Tagline: Colonialism sucks
The Breakfast Club, Fletch, After Hours

1986: Platoon (=)
Tagline: Vietnam sucked
Hoosiers, Top Gun

1987: The Last Emperor (?)
Tagline: Mao sucked
Broadcast News, The Princess Bride

1988: Rain Man (+)

1989: Driving Miss Daisy (?)
Tagline: Driving rich old white ladies around sucks
Do The Right Thing, Dead Poets Society

1990: Dances With Wolves (?)
Tagline: The White Man sucks
Goodfellas, When Harry Met Sally

1991: The Silence of the Lambs (+)
Tagline:
Fava beans don't suck
Thelma and Louise

1992: Unforgiven (?)
Tagline: Not giving Clint Eastwood an Oscar before his 60th birthday would really suck
A Few Good Men, My Cousin Vinny

1993: Schindler's List (=)
Tagline: The Holocaust sucked
Groundhog Day, Dazed and Confused

1994: Forrest Gump (=)
Tagline: Self-awareness sucks
The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Hoop Dreams

1995: Braveheart (+)

1996: The English Patient (?)
Tagline: It's World War II, northern Africa and a doomed love triangle: if it was good enough for Casablanca...
Jerry Maguire, Fargo, Trainspotting

1997: Titanic (=)
Tagline: Being a historical metaphor sucks
Good Will Hunting, Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential

1998: Shakespeare in Love (?)
Tagline: Die Bard with a Vengeance
Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski

1999: American Beauty (?)
Tagline: The American Dream sucks
The Matrix, The Sixth Sense

2000: Gladiator (=)
Tagline: Ultimate fighting used to suck
Almost Famous

2001: A Beautiful Mind (=)
Tagline: I see non-existent people
Moulin Rouge, Training Day

2002:Chicago (+)

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (?)
Tagline: A three-film gross of $2.9 billion does not suck
Lost in Translation; Love, Actually

2004: Million Dollar Baby (?)
Tagline: Foxy boxing sucks
Sideways, The Incredibles

2005:Crash (?)
Tagline: White people (mostly) suck
Grizzly Man, Syriana, Brokeback Mountain

2006: The Departed (=)
Tagline: Will someone give Scorsese an Oscar fer crissakes?
Pan's Labyrinth, The Last King of Scotland

2007: No Country for Old Men (+)

2008: Slumdog Millionaire (=)
Tagline:
Game-show hosts suck
In Bruges, Gran Torino

2009: The Hurt Locker (=)
Tagline: Getting blown up sucks
The Hangover, Inglourious Basterds, Up

2010: The King's Speech (?)
Tagline: What if Eliza Doolittle were the king of England?'
The Social Network, The Fighter

2011: The Artist (=)
Tagline: ______________
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; The Descendants

2012: Argo (+)

2013: 12 Years a Slave (=)
Tagline: Yup. White people still suck
Frozen, Gravity

Worst Best Pictures: Why the Academy Screws Up the Category So Often | Culture